Plants are like people. They have certain companions they like being with and certain places they like hanging out.

These plant groupings are explained in “Natural Landscapes of Maine: A Guide to Natural Communities and Ecosystems,” published in 2010 by the Maine Natural Areas Program of what is now the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The book is written by Susan Gawler and Andrew Cutko.

“Natural Landscapes of Maine” came to my attention last fall when Lois Berg Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist and professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, told a landscape design class I was taking that landscapes look and work better if they include plants that go together in nature. To find out what these groupings are, she recommended the book.

Cutko, contacted by telephone last week, said that while the book was not written as a guide to landscapers, it certainly could work that way. Step 1 is to study the land in question in order to figure out what type of area you have.

“If you have an open area, you would want to think about goldenrod, asters and hay-scented ferns,” Cutko said. “If you have a wooded area, you would want bunchberry, Canada mayflowers or maybe even pink lady slippers.”

The next step is to determine if the soil is wet or dry. Dry areas would have plants like sweetfern (despite the name, it’s a low-growing shrub, not a fern), which would go well with such other dry-loving plants as bracken fern.

Most of the plants in these natural landscapes are native to the region, which means that in addition to playing well with other native plants, they support native wildlife – since the plants and the animals that feed on them evolved together. A few non-natives, such as rugosa roses that have acclimated well to the Maine coast, are also included.

The book suggests that by re-creating the natural landscapes in suburban and urban areas, gardeners would be helping the state deal with inevitable climate change.

According to “Natural Landscapes of Maine,” as warmer temperatures change the species range for the animals, undeveloped green belts or habitat corridors will allow the animals to move through developed areas.

“Planted habitats of all sizes could serve as corridors,” Cutko said. “Any path of connective habitat is helpful.”

The book got me thinking about the habitat around our house. Although we had our house built in an abandoned strawberry/cabbage field, the wooded area surrounding it included red maples, red oaks and a few white pines, with blackberries and raspberries as understory shrubs. I don’t remember much about the herbal plants, but I know we had some Canada mayflower.

Checking the book with that information, I think our property was an oak-pine woodland, which is one of the more common natural communities in the southern part of Maine.

Many of these sites were former pasture or had been burned, so maybe the woods had grown in from the sides of what my wife, Nancy, knew as strawberry or cabbage fields when her grandparents owned the property.

For taller trees, it could also have had red pine and red spruce. Shrubs could have included shadbush (the horticultural name is amelanchier), blueberries and sheep laurel (kalmia).

We didn’t see any of those shrubs naturally growing on the property, but over the years we have added blueberries, shadbush and mountain laurel just because they are native shrubs that we thought would look good. Maybe we were in tune with what would have grown on the property naturally. Certainly, we chose the plants because they fitted in, and sometimes under, the taller trees. Kalmias, rhododendrons and other Maine natives are natural understory plants; they are delighted to shelter under oaks and pines, where they grow successfully.

The next time I go to the family camp near Bethel, I will take “Natural Landscapes of Maine” and see if I can label the landscape there. From memory I know there are birches, striped maple and hemlocks and much of the so-called lawn is soggy in the spring. With this book at hand, I will study the land more closely. I’m not sure I will add any plants around the camp, but I can say that identifying wildlands using this book is addictive.

Any homeowner – even in completely built-up neighborhoods – could study the nearest wildlands to their home and incorporate some of those plants in their landscape. Even if you’re not interested in adding to your own garden, reading this book will give you fresh perspective on any Maine landscape, which is always useful for a gardener.

Cutko said the staff at the Maine Natural Areas Program is considering an update of the book, in part because people have contacted them about other areas and also because the staff has done additional research.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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